Linebacker has frequently come up as a top draft need for the Cincinnati Bengals. However, while the Bengals’ need to shore up their linebacker depth is very real, it might not require the kind of investment many fans and analysts are thinking. Picking up a linebacker in the first, second, or even third round could be too heavy of an investment for a position that already seems to have the next generation on track and the starters for 2017 in place.
Let’s all agree that Vontaze Burfict isn’t going anywhere. Despite his issues with staying out of trouble on-the-field, he is still one of the most talented linebackers in the league and one of the Bengals’ defensive staples for the foreseeable future. There is virtually no reason to worry about the Bengals’ weak outside linebacker position, as a result. However, the Bengals parted ways with both of their other starting linebackers from 2016, Rey Maualuga and Karlos Dansby, this offseason. But, there already seems to be a succession plan in place in both cases.
At middle linebacker, the Bengals have newly signed veteran Kevin Minter and long-time backup Vincent Rey. Like any new, young talent, there is no guarantee Minter will pan out as the immediate starter. However, a solid veteran backup like Rey is good to have in case Minter is not ready to start right away (though, he should be). Minter is on a one-year deal, so long-term, this is a position that could use backup help to grow and learn, but isn’t in need of immediate assistance.
At the strong outside linebacker position, the Bengals have some growing room. With Dansby no longer in Cincinnati, the Bengals need a new starter. Nick Vigil is expected to take the reigns at the position, impressing coaches and fans alike every step of the way. P.J. Dawson will likely fill the backup role at that position, at least during the offseason. This is a make-or-break year for Dawson who was relegated to practice squad duties in 2017.
The Bengals also have Marquis Flowers and Bryson Albright on the roster at linebacker to fill the back-end of the unit. At the moment, the Bengals appear to have a plan for how their linebacker corps should develop going forward, at least for 2017.
Therefore, targeting high-profile linebackers in the upcoming 2017 NFL Draft doesn’t make much sense. A player like Reuben Foster, Takkarist McKinley, or Zach Cunningham could add a lot of talent to a unit that has underperformed in recent years. But, drafting any of them would also be a statement, by the Bengals, that they are not confident in their young linebackers currently in place.
However, that doesn’t mean drafting Vigil or signing Minter means the Bengals should ignore the linebacker position in 2017. The Bengals have 11 picks to play with, so using one or two of those picks to infuse the linebacker corps with more talent makes sense. For example, the Bengals could pick up a promising young prospect like Blair Brown of Ohio or Carroll Phillips of Illinois. Both prospects are likely to be taken in the fourth or fifth round, where the Bengals have a total of four draft picks.
Either player could be brought in to push young backups like Dawson, Flowers, or Albright and potentially replace an underperforming player. And, when Minter’s contract expires next year, the Bengals could need a replacement who spent the 2017 season training and preparing to take on a starting role in the future. However, using an early pick on a linebacker wouldn’t be wise as the Bengals’ top picks should be immediate-impact players who will take on big roles in 2017. It doesn’t seem like that would be the case if the Bengals select a linebacker early.
The Bengals can focus on shoring up the depth at the position with one or more of their later picks, while leaving their early picks for more pressing needs like running back, defensive end and the offensive line.
If it hasn’t already been said enough times, let us not forget the Bengals are likely to pick the player whom they feel is the ‘best available’ when the team is on the clock. If that player happens to be a linebacker in one of the earlier rounds, Bengals fans should expect that player’s name to be called. However, there is a good chance it won’t be a linebacker, given recent trends. If the Bengals were to go in a different direction, it would likely be the right move.